The success of welfare reform in America will hinge on many things. But one important element, too often overlooked in the rush to find employment for mothers on welfare, is the role of the men who fathered their children.
If fathers can be put back in touch with their children - through paying child support and through more frequent, more positive visits - something approaching normal family life may start to develop, with the stability it promises.
That's the hope of many sociologists and some members of Congress. But it's a large, complex undertaking. A recent report by the New York-based Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation studied the performance of one long-running program aimed at helping poor, absent fathers take more responsibility for their families.
The study found minimal increases in child support payments, on average, though a few localities - Dayton, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, for instance - showed significant gains. Most of the fathers in this program, Parents' Fair Share, were black or Hispanic. Many had left school around the 10th grade. Almost 70 percent had criminal records.
Similar characteristics describe many fathers who lurk in the background of the latest effort to reform the welfare system. How to bring them out of the shadows and get them involved with their kids is a task that attracts both liberals and conservatives.
Consider conservative Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida. He pushed hard for welfare reform in 1996 and is now pushing to pass a bill that would spend $2 billion on counseling, including religious counseling, to encourage men to rejoin their families. The value of marriage is a key theme for Mr. Shaw and other conservatives interested in the issue.
The liberal approach focuses on training that could turn these men into economic resources for their families. Marriage, it's argued, has to grow from marriageability.
The two approaches shouldn't be mutually exclusive. The basic need is to open people's thinking to possibilities they may have considered out of reach - or even not that appealing. The new welfare law gives states the option of emphasizing fatherhood. For example, more child support can go directly to families, instead of going to states to offset public support.
There's urgency here. Mothers facing deadlines for assuming greater economic responsibility would have brighter prospects if they had a partner sharing the load.